As Rotty Top the corpse flower bloom ends its act on a malodorous note, it’s evident that a lot of people love nature – even its most indelicate stank

Written by JJ Stambaugh

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Hundreds of humans attracted to stench of Rotty Top; Hard Knox Wire performs autopsy on UT corpse flower phenom

(This story was originally published by Hard Knox Wire).

“What I feel the most is excited from all the exposure that folks are getting of biology and the greenhouses,” said UT biology greenhouse director Jeff Martin. “I didn’t realize this many people would be interested, and it’s great. Hopefully, this will get people a little more interested in other types of plants.”

She came, she reeked, she conquered.

That’s how the history books may recall Rotty Top’s brief tenure as the biggest star on the University of Tennessee campus in July 2021. 

The corpse flower (or titan arum, to the biologists among us) finally bloomed early Thursday morning after two weeks of teasing its keepers — and the public — that it was about to drop its leaves and saturate its surroundings with the odor of decaying flesh.

Hundreds of visitors had already visited Rotty Top in the days preceding the rare event (the plant blooms at best once every decade), but on Thursday it seemed as though they were all returning at once. Shuttle buses carried curious fans from a nearby parking garage to the Hesler Biology Building on Circle Drive, and scores of people crowded around the titan arum’s enclosure to get a whiff of its infamous scent.

“Most of the odors are going to be those sulfuric, garlicky, even fishy scents,” said Kaitlin Palla, assistant greenhouse manager for UT’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “Those are produced by two of the main compounds the central column will produce. It’s heating up to 98 degrees right now, so it’s really aerosolizing those compounds in particular. But there’s also floral notes from the skirt-like structure around the bottom.”

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The titan arum evolved to use the scents to attract insects that feed on dead animals such as flesh flies and carrion beetles.

Although opinions in the crowd differed as to what exactly Rotty Top smelled like, everyone agreed the odor was singularly foul. 

“Hot garbage,” said Ricky Williams, who snapped pictures of the corpse flower while his wife, Rebecca, posed in front of the glass. “Hot, stinky garbage that’s been in the sun too long.” 

“Yes, that is certainly gross,” said Linda Moore, 30, who hurried to UT from Oak Ridge after learning from social media that Rotty Top had finally bloomed. “Was it worth driving down here and going into work late? I don’t know. Probably, since it’s certainly memorable.”

It was, of course, more than memorable for the UT horticulturalists who have cared for Rotty Top since the titan arum was a mere pup — or, in this case, a mere corm.

According to Palla, a corm looks like a swollen potato. The central column and flowers that eventually appear all grow out of the corm, which spends 10 years or more collecting water, nutrients and energy before it is ready to bloom. Mature columns can sometimes grow 10-feet tall, but Rotty Top is considerably more modest at 44 inches in height.

When a corpse flower blooms, all the stored energy is poured into opening the top, heating itself to 98 degrees, and producing the chemical compounds that make it such a smelly houseguest, Palla explained.

“I feel like I’m witnessing the birth of a child,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been midwife to it.”

Palla said one of the most rewarding elements of caring for Rotty Top has been the opportunity to study how the titan arum evolved into such a highly specialized life form. 

“It’s wonderful to see the wild permutations these things take,” she said. “The color can sometimes be a lot more bright red or deep purple. I think ours is perfect. It almost looks like velvet.”

To Jeff Martin, greenhouse manager, the blooming of Rotty Top came as a tremendous relief. 

He and his staff had been preparing for the event since their charge began showing the traditional signs of preparing to bloom two weeks ago. 

“There are some titan arum that don’t open and, as much attention as this one has received, we were very worried that people would be upset if it didn’t open,” Martin said. “Granted, plants are plants and they do it their way. When I got the call this morning it was just great stress relief.”

Martin said he’s been surprised but pleased by the large crowds that have come to see Rotty Top. 

“What I feel the most is excited from all the exposure that folks are getting of biology and the greenhouses,” he said. “I didn’t realize this many people would be interested, and it’s great. Hopefully, this will get people a little more interested in other types of plants.”

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In 1878, Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari discovered the titan arum on the tropical island of Sumatra in the Pacific Ocean and sent seeds and samples back home. They were shared among several gardens, with the first one successfully cultivated in 1889 at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England.

Rotty Top was acquired from the University of Connecticut in 1999 and has only now grown large enough to bloom, Martin said. There are several other examples of the titan arum in the UT greenhouses in various stages of growth.

Despite the enthusiastic interest in the corpse flower, it’s an endangered species. Populations have declined by about 50 percent in the last 150 years, with most of the losses attributed to logging and the conversion of tropical forests to palm oil plantations, according to Martin.

UT’s indoor plant collection is housed in four greenhouses and contains 575 different types of plants. The collection is used by majors in biology, plant science, and ecology and environmental biology, and it’s visited officially each year by 300 students in 10 different classes, according to UT.

Those interested in supporting the biology greenhouse can make donations to the Dr. Ken McFarland Greenhouse Support Fund on UTK’s donation site.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

 

 

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    The corpse plant at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville has not bloomed in 20 years

    The titan arum (Amorphophalus titanum), native to Sumatra, is remarkable for several reasons.

    It is more often referred to by colloquial names, such as corpse flower, rotting corpse plant or carrion plant, because of the strong distinct odor it releases to attract pollinators when it flowers.

    No other species of flowering plant has an unbranched inflorescence, or flower-bearing reproductive part, as large as titan arum. Unbranched means that all flowers grow from a single stem; a gigantic one in this case. A record height above corm (underground storage tuber) of 10.5 ft was measured at Bonn Botanical Gardens in June 21, 2013. 

    When an inflorescence has many small flowers on a fleshy stem and is initially enclosed by a leaf-like sheath, botanists call it a spadix and its sheath a spathe. Even after the spathe has opened, the flowers are hard to see because they are so small and near the bottom of the stem. In the absence of a balcony above, viewers would have to be on a ladder to peek down into the narrow part of the spathe. It’s not the flowers that are spectacular — it’s the overwhelming size, overall shape and sheer beauty of the plant!

    Carrion beetles and flesh flies are titan arum’s pollinators. It has evolved unparalleled capacity to attract them. While flowering, it heats up the tip of the spadix to the range of mammalian body temperatures, which not only helps volatilize the odors to entice insects from far away, but may be sensed by some of them to further indicate proximity of food. The plant has opened the spathe like a wide cocktail glass to show its inside surface. The deep red color and texture could buttress the illusion of a big chunk of carrion.

    Why is it even rarer to see titan arum fruit in a botanical garden?

    Outside the equatorial region, botanical gardens cannot cultivate many corpse plants due to their size. The typical interval between blooms is five to twelve years.

    The actual flowers last one day only. Female flowers bloom first. One or two days later the male flowers bloom. This normally prevents self-pollination. As these plants bloom so rarely, chances are slim to have viable pollen on hand for artificial pollination.

  • Come get up close with a corpse (flower) at UTK

    KnoxNews: Welcome to Rocky Top, Rotty Top!

    A seldom-seen corpse flower is about to burst forth in bloom following a 20-year sleep — presumably not in a casket and not at the Body Farm — at the Hesler Biology Building at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

    A previous faculty member got the plant two decades ago, but this is its first blooming cycle, according to the News Sentinel. It has been nursed along by current greenhouse director Jeff Martin — in someone else’s office, of course. The plant only blooms about every 10 years, if not more infrequently.

    Members of the public are invited to come partake of the odor and revel in sheer stank in the next several days. 

    “A 2010 study by Japanese researchers attributed the plant’s smell to a combination of chemicals that smell like cheese, sweat, garlic, decaying meat, rotten eggs and more,” according to the News Sentinel.

    But it’s not just about the smell: The plant produces the world’s largest flower and is endangered in the wild. Pollen from this corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum — you can suss out the literal definition yourself) may be used to pollinate other endangered corpse flowers, which are native to Southeast Asia. 

    The odor is an evolutionary pollination mechanism to attract flies and other insects that are attracted to the smell of rotting flesh.